2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of Dublin Theatre Festival, what’s considered the oldest specialised theatre festival in Europe. At its beginnings, the festival presented only theatre, both Irish and international – unlike, say, the Edinburgh festival, which also presents dance, opera and music. But in recent years, boundaries between theatre, visual art, dance and music have become ever more permeable, with artists comfortably inhabiting multiple forms or collaborating across them – the term ‘theatre maker’ has emerged to capture the spirit of how performances are often made now, smashing together the roles of playwright, director and designer.
DTF has also become more diverse in recent years, with dance making its way onto the programme, as well as collaborations between theatre artists and musicians.
The festival has also come a long way since its first turbulent years in 1957/58 when religious censorship compromised the programming and saw Samuel Beckett withdraw one of his plays in protest. Programming now, under current director Willie White, embraces political stridency, regularly presenting work by firebrand Irish companies like ANU and THEATREclub who explicitly challenge the Irish state and status quo.
Rachel Donnelly spoke to three of this year’s festival artists about the themes their work deals with, and their approach to making it. First up, Gavin Quinn, Pan Pan Theatre on The Good House of Happiness
The Good House of Happiness – Pan Pan Theatre
Ireland is an increasingly secular country. Right? Yes, but only by increments. The 2016 census placed the self-identifying Catholic population of the country at 78%, a 6% decrease from five years previously. That’s still a strong majority, and a relatively minor decrease. Though a large number of these self-identified Catholics are probably non-practicing (not going to mass, merrily having pre-marital sex, eating meat on a Friday and, given the statistics, sometimes travelling to the UK for abortions), there’s one stubborn feature of this non-secularity that will probably be the last wall to fall: the idea that there is good and there is bad and that those two things are somehow objective.
Premiering as part of this year’s festival, The Good House of Happiness is a new work by Pan Pan Theatre based on the Brecht parable The Good Person of Szechwan. In the original story, a Chinese woman, Shen Te, is tasked with saving the religious population of the country by three disgruntled gods.
“In the original play, the gods come down and say ‘If we don’t find one good person, we’re going to hand the world over to the atheists.’ These three gods arrive on earth, they’re a bit tattered, a bit down at heel. They’re looking for a room to stay in and the only person who offers them one is Shen Te. So they give her some money and say ‘Let’s see if you can be good’,” contextualises Gavin Quinn, director and co-writer of the play, along with Eugene O’Brien.
Brecht was a Marxist and big on historical materialism – the idea that the morality of a society is determined by its economic conditions. Or, as Hamlet says, “nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Historical materialism says that this thinking is heavily influenced by the dough in your pocket/bank account. The original play was staged in Germany with an all-German cast playing the Chinese roles. Pan Pan already have a relationship with China – they’ve staged plays there over the last twelve years, including a version of the Irish classic, The Playboy of the Western World, with an all-Chinese cast. For their version of Brecht’s parable, The Good House of Happiness, Pan Pan cast close to home. Though they had open auditions, with people of different nationalities including Irish auditioning, but ultimately decided to choose predominantly Asian performers, casting two Mongolians and three Chinese people. Though some had a degree of experience with performance, these individuals were not trained actors – they were accountants and tech company employees.
It’s mentioned somewhere in the promotional information that the play is set on Parnell Street, one of Dublin’s multicultural hotspots. I ask Gavin about this.
That’s just a joke, plays aren’t really set anywhere – that’s for people who think theatre should be like television … It’s not Parnell Street, it’s a stage in Smock Alley. The idea of something being set somewhere is just old-fashioned playwriting that people hold into.
Pan Pan’s approach to making theatre could/would be described as experimental. They embrace the Brechtian technique of alienation, where actors “directly address the audience, sometimes in third person … and don’t become emotionally involved in the character”. Although, Gavin emphasises that there’s no one way to work. In the case of The Good House of Happiness, the work started with a script, which was written before casting. The script does bear the imprint of the stories and experiences of the cast members, but the script is primary and the performance is tightly controlled – “it’s scripted to within an inch of its life – it can’t be too loose”.
In the original story, the main character Shen Te, the good person ordained by the gods to carry the fate of her country’s morality, adopts a male alter-ego to allow her to maintain her business in the cut-throat world of commerce, while maintaining her moral purity. There’s perhaps a commentary here on morality and gender inequality, though Pan Pan are interpreting this duel-character aspect of the story more in terms of individual potential and possibility.
In the original play she creates an alter-ego to find a new side of herself… so in our version it’s very much emphasising the alter ego, how you can have choice to make yourself someone else – it’s all about freedom of choice… Brecht would also have been influenced by the Buddhist idea that we don’t just have one self, we have many selves and they evolve and change rapidly.
Words – Rachel Donnelly